Alessandro Magnasco and Fabrizio De André. Common traits in painting and music of two modern artists.

We propose an article in search of the common traits in the art of Alessandro Magnasco and Fabrizio De André, both Genoese, both great and modern artists.

In a well-known photograph taken by Guido Harari, the great Fabrizio De André is portrayed on his bed in his home, reading a newspaper, with his guitar at his side and a whole series of books and objects (pens, pencils, notebooks, a telephone... ). This is 1996, and the image was part of a shoot intended to promote what would be the Genoese singer-songwriter’s last album, Anime salve. Among the books scattered on the bed we can see a large catalog by Alessandro Magnasco, a painter, also from Genoa, who worked in the 18th century and to whom we also dedicated an episode of our podcast.

The catalog does not play a casual role, because Alessandro Magnasco, like De André, was an artist who depicted the lives of outcasts, and he did so at a time when"art" was almost synonymous with Rococo, a highly aestheticizing art (so much so that it often fell into frivolity) whose main goal was to make the viewer enjoy an aesthetic pleasure, a pleasure untethered from any contact with reality. And the same could be said of De André, if we compare his work with contemporary Italian music and the dominant taste. However, the journey in Magnasco and De André’s Genoa does not begin in the alleys of the historic center, in the coves of the harbor or in some sailor’s dive bar, but rather in the city’s most luxurious district: Albaro.

In the Gallery of Palazzo Bianco, located on the majestic Via Garibaldi, once known as Strada Nuova, is preserved one of Alessandro Magnasco’s most famous paintings, his Trattenimento in un giardino di Albaro, a work from around 1735 in which a little party of rich people, held, precisely, in a garden in Albaro, almost becomes the excuse to offer the viewer a panorama of the Bisagno valley, now heavily urbanized (along the Bisagno stream are some of the most populous neighborhoods in Genoa). It seems that the garden depicted by Magnasco, given the panorama, is that of Villa Saluzzo Bombrini, also known as the Paradiso, an ancient aristocratic villa built in the late sixteenth century for the Saluzzo marquises who, like almost all the most prominent Genoese families, had chosen Albaro as the place to have their pleasure residence built outside the city center. Later the property passed to the Bombrini family, and during the twentieth century, the building was divided into apartments: in one of these, De André’s family lived (his father was, among other things, CEO of Eridania).

We can, however, imagine the young De André more at home among the streets of the old port area than among the wealthy villas of Albaro, and it was in the slums of Genoa that one of his most beautiful songs, La città vecchia, inspired by Umberto Saba ’s lyric of the same name, was born, and that, like the latter (although Saba’s poem was set in Trieste), describes a reality made up of prostitutes, thieves, old drunks, and a whole humanity wallowing in degradation, in the “quarters where the sun of the good God does not give its rays.” but precisely their miserable condition is the key to understanding all these characters who “if they are not lilies, they are still children, victims of this world.” It is as if De André is asking us to feel not disgust, but compassion. A humanity that is far removed (or rather: is kept far removed) from the wealthy bourgeoisie, which Alessandro Magnasco also criticizes, using quick flicks of the brush to define the little figures of the rich celebrating and enjoying their carefree moments, almost as if their presence were a disturbance to the view of a landscape where, at that time, we could almost only glimpse tilled fields. Not to mention their poses: they look like thespians bustling about on a stage far from a reality of toil, hardship, and marginalization.

The port area of Genoa as we see it today is certainly not what De André saw at the time of the composition of his song La città vecchia, written in 1962 and published three years later. In the early 1990s (at the 1992Expo, to be exact), the old port underwent heavy urban redevelopment and today it is one of the areas of Genoa where it is most pleasant to entertain oneself: a long, beautiful, and evocative walk makes us admire the sea on one side and the city clinging to the hills on the other, there are museums, there are stores, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, and there is the Aquarium. However, it happens very often to be approached by Roma women begging, especially in the part of the promenade between Piazza Caricamento and the Spinola bridge.

The world of gypsies fascinated both Fabrizio De André and Alessandro Magnasco. From the singer-songwriter we remember, always referring to the album Anime salve, the song Khorakhanè, which tells us precisely about the Khorakhanè, a tribe of Roma Muslims originally from the Balkans, particularly Kosovo and Montenegro. De André describes the Khorakhanè to us romantically, as a people always on the move, although “some Roma stopped Italian, like a copper to dusk on a wall.” And the moment when the Gypsies “stop,” is probably Alessandro Magnasco’s favorite, who very often made Gypsy-themed paintings in his career.

One of these paintings is preserved in the Uffizi, and it is known as Gypsy Reception. The gypsies, depicted in Magnasco’s usual style of rapid brushstrokes that build the figures with a few touches, are here engaged in eating. Disorder reigns in the painting: the protagonists are camped out on the steps of ancient ruins (then, as now, they were relegated to the outskirts of towns, as far away from dwellings as possible), we see plates and jugs carelessly placed on the ground, we see crockery thrown here and there, we see people in crude and disheveled poses (such as the figure on the left, who eats by dropping food into his mouth from above by lifting it with his hand, or the one next to him, sitting with his legs stretched out under the miserable table), we see animals eating along with people. It is the poetics of the humble, trying to give them back to us in a truthful way, without filters, with references both to their way of being and their way of earning a living (in De André the references are to copper and merry-go-rounds, in Magnasco instead we have a budgerigar in the foreground, because gypsies at the time, as still today on certain occasions, would baste improvised street shows trying to amaze the audience with trained pets).

Trattenimento in un giardino di Albaro (Genova, Palazzo Bianco) Refezione di zingari (Firenze, Uffizi) Interrogatorio dell'Inquisizione (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) Scena di pellegrinaggio (Genova, Palazzo Tursi)

Elaborating a poetics of the humble, however, also means touching on much more painful themes: if, after all, the gypsy camp introduces us to themes such as travel, carefreeness and, above all, freedom, in the world there are also those who have been deprived of this freedom, and sometimes painfully so. We talk about prisoners, and in this case both De André’s music and Magnasco’s painting have the same value of social denunciation. Always the conditions of prisons are mentioned: in one of his paintings preserved at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and made around 1710 (i.e., the same period as the Uffizi painting), the Genoese painter shows us a brutal interrogation by the Inquisition involving several prisoners. One, in the center, is forced to undergo the torture of the stretch of rope, through which the hapless man was tied by the wrists with a rope and then lifted by means of a pulley, causing the weight of the body to weigh on the upper limbs. This was a torture that could cause permanent damage, as was that of the trestle we see on the right: in this case, the prisoner was made to sit on top of a wedge, with weights dragging him downward.

Magnasco emphasizes the inhumanity of these treatments (as indeed are those to which the detainees on the left are subjected, tied to the wall with a collar with a very short chain), an inhumanity exacerbated by the contrast between the detainees’ suffering and the calmness of the Inquisition officials doing their work. And the inflexibility and lack of compassion of certain ecclesiastical circles toward prisoners appear to us to be the same as De André sings in his Ballata del Michè when he says that the protagonist of the song “in the mass grave he will be, without the priest and the mass, because of a suicide they have no pity.” A song that, like Magnasco’s painting, poses to the user the problem of prison conditions, and thus a song that, more than fifty years later (it was written in 1961), continues to have a highly topical lyric: it was just a few days ago that the news that prison suicides increased in 2014.

The critique of certain instances of religion (especially, those expressed by its official apparatuses) cannot but lead both Fabrizio De André and Alessandro Magnasco to look with greater sympathy at a more frank, more humble and therefore, for these reasons, more sincere religiosity. It is difficult to summarize in a few lines the conception of religion according to the two artists, but the last verse of his song Il testamento di Tito (Titus’ testament), or the vision of the Ten Commandments according to the good thief crucified together with Jesus (whom the singer-songwriter considered the greatest revolutionary of all time), applies to De André: “In the piety that does not yield to rancor, mother, I have learned love. It is precisely love for one’s neighbor that is the sentiment that should move an individual’s morality and actions, but it is a sentiment disregarded by the very people who should preach it. And this is why Alessandro Magnasco’s religiosity also moves away from the solemn pomp of the ”official" Church to investigate instead the world of meditating friars and pilgrims, who are closer to true religious feeling.

We see this in a painting also kept in Genoa, but in Palazzo Tursi: it is a pilgrimage scene in which pilgrims, despite their fatigue, the roughness of the journey (the scene is set in a mountainous landscape), their worn-out clothes, nevertheless find the strength to kneel in front of a small mountain chapel to pray. How many of the high prelates have such a strong religious feeling?

Alessandro Magnasco and Fabrizio De André are two artists who have much in common. Both out of the box, both critical of their society, both on the side of the humble and the marginalized, and for this reason both artists of a very high modernity (especially if we think of Alessandro Magnasco and the time when he produced his masterpieces), who have offered us an art that is always relevant and that is the bearer of strong and noble messages. And sometimes, wandering around the streets of Genoa (but not only, we could say of all the cities of the world, because their art is a universal art), it almost seems as if we can feel their constant presence.

Suggested listening: La città vecchia, Khorakhanè, La ballata del Michè, Il testamento di Tito

To learn more about the art of Alessandro Magnasco: Alessandro Magnasco - “Painter of a particular character in his paintings”

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